100 Million Years Hence: a thought experiment

The inner cynic whispers to me a scenario:

The story is 100 million years from now.

A future species arrives at a level of intelligence great enough to develop self-flattering mythologies, empirical research methodologies, technology, distinct cultural identities and ideologies.

They dig.

In one geological layer, they find something striking.

It’s littered with the fossilised remnants of artificial origins.

fossil-human

Enough of these fragments point to a bipedal creature previously obtaining an akin level of intelligence, however, it’s impossible to tell whether or not they too were spacefaring.

Ice cores and geological assessment talk of their industries as well as hinted at their capacity to harness the energy in ionising radiation.

“At such a level of sophistication – something much like our own,” these future thinkers ask, “how is it that they disappeared?”

Of course, the answers too, were written in stone.

Climate research points to a radical global shift within a short time span – a few centuries at best – resulting from their burning of carbon fuels.

Species richness prior to the bipedal dominance layer was utterly gone within it. Genetic research likewise points to a bottleneck and later resurgence in species diversity around 90-95 million years ago. The loss of biological resources too would have led the bipeds to global poverty.

Yet the most damning line of evidence is found in the upper limits of the bipedal layer. It showed the strongest evidence of ionising radiation.

It was likely that their last chapter was one of winless war.

Of course, the reality of this story is too horrible to contemplate. For a long time, these future thinkers are cautious in drawing too many parallels. Certainly, the divine literature tell them that the world is theirs to harvest and cannot be over-exploited… but did the bipeds believe the same? Could the sacred texts be wrong?

And then there was the industries of these future thinkers, which likewise emit carbon dioxide. Can this trace compound in such low levels really threaten future prosperity and indeed life itself?

As these future thinkers dig deeper and look ever closer at the bipedal layer of junk and tragedy, the parallels become overwhelming.

The inner cynic asks me whether these future thinkers too would follow the same road to ruin, or is the story of their distant cousins enough of a forewarning?

I can’t answer the cynic. So I pose the question to you.

Vivaldi Lost: The Arts, “Lifestyle Choice” and sustainable, low-carbon economies

 

"expressionist violin" painting by Steve Johnson.
“expressionist violin”
painting by Steve Johnson.

In the early 18th century, Antonio Vivaldi taught violin to female students of the orphanage school, Ospedale della Pietà, so that they may have an occupation in adulthood.

Today, the arts are deemed, so we are told in Australia, an unprofitable “lifestyle choice”.

Before we turn to judgement, I would urge that we take this statement in the appropriate context.

Given that, raw resource extraction, the exploitation of cheap labour in developing nations, increasing car dependency and the hunger for material consumerism and housing, among others, are so profitable nowadays, why should we support the training of free expression?

It’s true that artists throughout history have struggled. Some of the most highly regarded authors, poets and painters only received their honours posthumously, when a future generation was ready to hear their message.

Others never make it for all their efforts.

From a strict financial risk assessment view point, investment in the arts is unfavourable.

Further, with the danger of sounding patronising I must also add that it’s easy to conclude materialism is our primary motivator. Just think of the mindless rush on stores around December and post-Christmas January.

Why invest in the arts when you can reliably receive greater returns in consumer goods and services?

The local art gallery appeals to a loftier crowd (who can be, or at least appear to be, judgemental to outsiders – I know firsthand).

How many venues for live local music close down each year? Of course, such venues only appeal to “youths”, drugs / alcohol and the unmotivated (so the stereotype goes). New apartments on the other hand will bring in students and young families – the industrious types.

A son returns home to tell his parents he was selected for a Bachelor degree in Creative Writing, while the daughter was previously accepted into a Medical degree. How do the parent respond? What do they envision for the relative futures of their children?

We have passively asserted to the “lifestyle choice” claim long before it was said.

I’m not casting blame here, however. We were often taught about the arts as a token gesture within our schools. In truth, it’s a feedback loop.

We are so far removed from Vivaldi.

The Arts can be an excellent low-carbon investment

In a recent post, I mentioned how Tobis once discussed the value of the non-material markets in achieving low carbon outcomes. The arts are exactly that.

Consumerism is little more than the wants of entertainment, either directly or one step removed (i.e. labour saving).

What if our culture again held the arts in high regard?

What if, rather than congealing on the couch before the “idiot box”, there was a thriving night scene in the local area?

What if, rather than buying a new computer console for the children, there were interesting / quirky activities nearby or after-school options that combined the arts with play, tailored to a given age group?

Aristotle once said that one learns music not necessarily to become a musician, but rather to acquire an ear able to appreciate good music. One could say the same of any of the arts. Thus, such a hypothetical culture would necessarily treat the arts as fundamental in all education, thereby opening up the door to this new low-carbon market.

Such a culture may also help with expression for those who otherwise suffer in silence with mental health issues. It could also be the antidote to our growing loneliness.

Lifestyle choices

To repeat; we have passively asserted to the “lifestyle choice” claim long before it was said.

We do that through our cultural value preferences.

Do we choose the high-carbon, meritocratic-neo-liberal cocktail that leaves us lonely and uncreative? Or, do we start thinking about other solutions that may be more sustainable, economically, environmentally and mentally?

Antonio Vivaldi himself betted on the favour of a king who, subsequently died soon after. With that preference gone, Vivaldi fell into poverty and died a year later.

I can’t help but find an important life lesson in the life of this musical genius.

Art is not a lifestyle choice, but rather life itself. A life without art isn’t innately human. If it loses preference, we will lose something more valuable than all the smart phones, flat screen TVs – all the mass consumer items combined.

If you doubt me, press play below.

Stockholm Syndrome for ideas: Why environmental and social debates are dripping with hostility

We’re all prisoners of Plato’s Cave.

To give the most brief explanation of Plato’s cave; we’re born unaware and as we reach adult years, we have developed a kind of Stockholm syndrome towards the conclusions we have reached over our lifetime, however poorly informed they may be. And, we will violently protect these conclusions as well.

I disagree with Plato on one point – no-one is ever entirely free from the cave.

For instance, I believe that I endeavour to learn daily from science, literature and history. But I know I remain ignorant to a great many subjects. Learning one subject comes at the cost of the ignorance of others and there are other subjects – such as gender / racial discrimination – which I never fully understand, given my gender and race.

I, we, everyone, remains a prisoner.

Realising this has helped me to adjust my interpretation of how many respond to the environmental and social problems we face.

On topics such a climate change, vaccination, gender / racial / marriage equality, we’ve all witnessed the vicious nature of opponents. It’s not really maliciousness aimed at us, but hostility towards ‘images’ that challenge their ‘shadows’.

I’ll give you an example case, primarily regarding progressive gender equality.

Loss of advantage

Recently, I saw an article appear in my news feed of Gavin McInnes resorting to fairly juvenile name calling in response to Waleed Aly’s comments.

McInnes makes clear his world views with his constant comments around masculinity, chauvinism, feminism / the social status of women and how the actions of the daughter reflect her father.

Further, his noted experience being around wealthy men has clearly exposed him to just one tiny group of people: women who look past men and to their wallets and men who look past women’s minds and to their bodies.

The insults used by McInnes demonstrate all of this in how they hark back to the puffed chest, member measuring masculinity of yesteryear.

Like me, you might find his views abhorrent, but they deserve greater attention.

Stepping back a few generations, being born a white male in the West instantly meant that your chances of success were above average, when compared to all women and other ethnic and racial groups.

Women expected unwanted attention and were taught to tolerate it. Domestic violence wasn’t spoken of and women found it hard to leave a relationship.

Basically, everything was in its place for white men to conclude that he was the master of his destiny.

Social reform over the twentieth century has progressively chiselled away at this pedestal.

Don’t get me wrong, it still exists. However it is not so lofty that, say a man of darker skin or a woman would be excluded from becoming a US president.

Privilege is no longer guaranteed for one subgroup.

This fall from grace is so great that the leveling of privilege feels like disadvantage to some.

The anger too over “political correctness” is very much the same: It’s not actually about what can legally be said, but that our moral values have shifted so much that some, once common points of view, are now deemed offensive. It’s not political correctness, but moral decency. The complaints come from resenting being on the wrongside.

Politically, what we’re experiencing across the west is, in part, a revolt against progressive modernity, where race and gender mean less in success.

The shadows of yesterday were more comforting than the images of today…. for some.

What now?

psx_20161019_195951

Remember, we’re all prisoners of Plato’s Cave.

For me, I hope that McInnes eventually meets enough genuine people who respect him for who he is and not for badges of success. Eventually, it may illuminate more light on how superficial the relationships he seems to glorify actually are.

An anti-vaxxer is often a scared parent who wants to protect their children. The misinformation they have been imprisoned by is terrifying. There is nobility to be found in their actions, even if misguided.

And with climate change, the shadows paint a story that human condition is only improved through growth, carbon emissions and industry. You hear it in the refuting argument; “they want to send us back to the stone age!”

We are on the edge of a new frontier. Our climate, industry and societies will necessarily be different from what we are familiar with. Change is difficult. Any loss, or perceived loss, leads to grieving. A loss of ignorance often means a loss of perceived comfort.

If we can remain mindful of Plato’s Cave, hopefully, we develop productive strategies to help bring everyone along to the new frontier: the Anthropocene.

Bigger ways to lose it all: the climate, natural resources and even what’s ours

“If we develop a global nuclear economy with synthesised hydrocarbon fuels, or truly effective electric batteries for motor vehicles, why the hell not buy a bigger SUV next year?”

This comment by another has since remained with me – even inspiring its own cartoon.

BAUep2low

Because, of course, bigger is better. Provided we can eradicate this pesky climate concern, we’re onto something great (please note my sarcasm).

The trouble with such a linear, dare I say blinkered, perspective is that sustainable energy is not our only concern. If the Nine Planetary Boundaries are taken as a fair indicator of the state our planet, climate change is actually in fourth place, with biosphere integrity (genetic diversity), biochemical flows and land use changes all more heavily modified and/or eroded.

With climate change included, these four represent the major threats to long term prosperity. All are the result of the “bigger is better” mentality.

Bigger cities and farms, and more produce and energy use, equal greater economic activity.

When efficiency is improved, we don’t make savings, we simply make more, exploiting resources more quickly.

Stocks up! GDP up!… up, up, up!!

Growth is the modern god, more tangible than any other before it.

The blessed, after all, are showered in fortune. Those who doubt it deserve their meager station. Oh, how wonderful is the union of neo-liberal individualism and meritocracy.

But how big can a city get before the term “city” loses all meaning? How many hectares can be converted from ecosystems to monocultures before we lose all bio-services (that underpin so much of our economic activity)?

And we openly scoff at the loss of biodiversity when the compounds found in plants, fungi and animals (especially venom) have probably saved each of our life at one point or another.

With another species lost, so too could a lifesaving compound.

But we need to be bigger to stay afloat!

When will we exhaust the resources we dig up in wild places – the metals, minerals and hydrocarbons – and be forced to turn our mining activities to sifting through yesteryear’s junk yards for the same resources?

When will we remove the white lines down our roads, merging two lanes into one to fit the colossal SUV’s just waiting for a primed market?

I’m personally uncomfortable with such naive economic philosophies we broadly celebrate. And I fail to see how we can even start to talk meaningfully about taking action on biodiversity loss, land degradation or climate change, while still holding out on “endless growth”.

Just because it is, doesn’t mean that it should be.

We need to start thinking differently about how we interact with our common natural resources.

Some years ago, Michael Tobis suggested that we encourage much more economic activity towards non-material (or renewable) sources, such as art and entertainment. Given that higher density cities can achieve greater efficiencies, that automation is reducing the need for full time work and the concerns mentioned above, this could develop into hubs of economic activity while reducing such sources of stress.

And then there’s the thinking of people, such as Epicurus who said, “To become rich, do not add to your account, but subtract from your desires.

Materialism brings loneliness and anxiety. We feel a strong want for so many things we don’t actually need and, moreover, are only momentarily fulfilling once they are obtained.

Learning to quiet the inner voice of trivial want makes us richer on a number of fronts: Of course, without spending, one has additional income to spend on more meaningful things (or to work less). And then there is the other side as well; if you desire less, you already have most of what you need and want.

This is the proper outcome of having wealth – the amount accrued to subjective and trivial, the outcome (i.e. contentment with one’s lot) more objective.

We may think we want to be a millionaire, but that is just the tool used to quench our desires. The same thing can be achieved, for a fraction of the cost, through the taming of want, while at the same reducing our anxieties, pointless efforts and vanities.

With our death, material stuff and wealth pass on to others or erode to nothing. We don’t own any of it, but borrow it for a brief speck of time.

The only thing we do own is our time. It’s ours to spend however we see fit. Unlike wealth, once it’s gone, it can never again be reclaimed.

We could waste our fleeting moments, stressing over our desk and work floors on how we can acquire a bigger SUV, house and other soon-to-be-forgotten goods (made more so by planned obsolescence). Or we could treasure the moments we save to hold our loved ones, laugh with old friends and build bonds with new friends.

Before bigger meant better, it was often defined by greed and gluttony.

Spend your time preciously and, in turn, tread a little lighter on our limited resources.

Slavery and Climate Change: the same question we were never good at answering

Carbon slaves

“…[if] the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.”
Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Part 4. (350 BCE)

Aristotle was correct. The day that brute human labour was no longer needed to achieve productive output, slaves would not be wanted.

I don’t believe for a second that there was a sudden uprising in human morality that led to the end of legalised ownership of people. In fact, in the quoted book above, Aristotle himself notes that, more than two thousand years ago, there were some people who thought slavery unjust.

No, our species has never felt entirely comfortable with slavery, but worked hard to justify it while they thought it necessary to reach a given standard of living.

For instance, Aristotle argued in Politics that it freed superior men from brutish toil, allowing them to become upright statesmen.

He wasn’t alone, of course. Many of the ancient thinkers and even The Bible not only condoned slavery, but provided guidance on how to most appropriately, that is, “morally”, master one’s human property.

There’s no surprised that it only went out of fashion with the Age of Enlightenment, the birth of modern science and the accompanying technological revolution. Rather quickly we had machines that methodically completed such tasks without the setbacks of slaves.

Indeed we could finally weave without guiding hands.

The end of legalised slavery was not a win for human morality, but merely a byproduct of changing technology and economic activity. Had advances in thought and technology been a century earlier or later, the results would be much the same, except with different names to the champions in our history books.

How does this relate to climate change?

It’s more than similes and parallels, but entirely the same problem.

For decades, academics have tried to argue the case, from evidence alone, as to why we should be concerned about growing carbon emissions and their impact on our fruitful (and very stable) Holocene climate.

Equally, the moral argument has grown ever louder for the rights of future people as well as the more vulnerable developing nations of today.

Yet, here we are, at 2016, with little more than token mitigation gestures to show for all the education and moral discussion.

The fundamental underlying problem is the same as with slavery: How can we maintain the standard of living we have, and expect to enjoy, without the cheap energy we currently exploit?

With human stock, the answer was only found when machines could fill the gap and business as usual could continue.

The underlying question took thousands of years to answer in the case of slavery. Why should we believe societies today to be any better with, again, answering the same problem, from a different energy source?

We must expect that the answer will be technological, not in education, or through morals or an uprising in, say, a minimalistic culture.

I know that many of us feel uncomfortable in betting on a “techno-fix” but human nature, as illustrated through our recorded history, leaves us with that as the most likely method for success.

To Supercede the Industrial Revolution…

Accepting that research and technological advancement are the only way to meaningfully mitigate carbon emissions and adapt to unavoidable climate change isn’t to handball the problem off to academics and industry so we can sit back and enjoy a cup of tea.

To act quickly requires, no, demands, public will.

Votes and the wallet don’t just speak, they shout.

Who we choose to represent us and what we choose to purchase both influence research and development. This is the democratic power we have in capitalistic countries.

Further, we know that climate change has, and will continue to have, significant impact on our global economy. To Invest in research and technology to replace the current carbon emitting systems is to invest in future prosperity.

We either let future climates make us poor or envision new markets, new niches and new ways of living for future wealth.

Thus the real champions to tackle climate change will come from the same group who led us to the problem – the entrepreneurs. Others might be remembered for great speeches and good policies, but it will be the entrepreneurs who will not only make these ideas reality, but also make them profitable, household names.

Slavery didn’t end because we worked to replace human hands with mechanics, but because of the reverse; new machines were seen to suit these tasks and were cheaper per unit of output.

Because our ancestors justified slavery, it wasn’t addressed until it was rendered unnecessary.

If we take a similar approach with climate change, we will be extremely poor before we face the question and thus be in a position unable to answer it. There’s a strong economic incentive to invest in finding the answer today.

Moreover, the so-called “debate” is rendered mute. We’re no longer pulling the moral or intellectual reins, but instead paving the path many steps ahead. That’s how progress is primarily achieved, as history teaches us.

Wars of ideology have never led us to prosperous futures. They only lead to a loss of life, wealth and intellectual freedom. The dreamer paved the way for the electrical light, radio and the aircraft.

The future is the entrepreneurs’ canvas while the ideologue does nothing but anchor us to the past. Climate change is the problem for the indefinite future.

If the car would drive and the city live without carbonised fossils to power them, the nation wouldn’t want fossil fuels nor the citizen the combustion engine.

Nothing but junk: How we buy up loneliness

A recent Lifeline survey found that the majority of respondents felt lonely. Even more respondents believed that loneliness was on the rise.

For me, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes to mind.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs (click for source)
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (click for source)

We live with the endless pursuit of stuff.

Stuff is suppose to make us entertained and more desirable to others. Stuff fills our homes and our spare time. Stuff weighs upon our anxieties.

Yet, to return to Maslow, beyond basic comfort (eg. shelter, warmth etc) and safety, much of the stuff is pointless.

We are sold on the idea that brands provide us with esteem, but does anyone really respect others more because they wear or hold a certain brand?

Even if the answer is yes, is this genuine esteem; after all, its attention is not the result of the person in any way, but only due to the badge they hold? Envy would be a better name for it, but more often, the types of people we would prefer to respect us are not the types of people so caught up in such trivialities as branding.

Brand association also means we spend a lot more on stuff when the generic alternative is just as good or, where the item is actually superfluous, we could live better without it entirely.

Self-actualisation too is not found in stuff. In fact the opposite is often true.

The advertisement shows us the driver cruising on empty roads through forests by sunset, and never the repayment schedule that leaves them pinned to the office desk.

Self-actualisation demands minimal overheads and expensive items that require undue attention and protection. The aim is to have opportunity to learn what fuels the fire in our hearts and minds as well as to provide us with the power to pursue these personal interests.

I entered into the discussion of environmental management from a natural sciences avenue, but the more I’ve learnt, the more I’ve come to realise that the problem is cultural. We are generally unfulfilled and needlessly isolated in a world of abundance and opportunity. We admire people that we typically don’t like and suffer endlessly from buyer’s remorse.

All the while, we churn over resources ever faster, quickly filling up garbage tip after garbage tip. The sigh of disappointment grows, pumping ever more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere and we are left paralysed, unable to stop it.

The valley of lost dreams (click for source)
The valley of lost dreams (click for source)

The problem isn’t new. Thinkers have long recognised that stuff does not bring happiness. Seneca, Epicurus and Lao Tzu are all examples of such thinkers who warned us thousands of years ago.

We are told that we want this stuff, but we fail to listen to the inner self as to what we actually need: The laughter of good friends over lively conversation. The affection of one in particular. To master something for no other reason but the enjoyment of it. To tread on new grounds.

To live.

To achieve a higher level of joy in life, it starts with recognising that the most rewarding goals are not found in material stuff. We need to focus on friendships and pursuing our hobbies.

Rather than a new pair of designer sunglasses, buy a $15 pair of sunnies and spend the rest on a BBQ with mates.

When your mobile plan is up, keep your phone if it’s otherwise fine (or replace it with a reasonable one you can buy outright), move to a SIM only plan and use the money you save to have regular movie nights with close friends once a month.

Reassess the house and car for functionality over prestige.

Make “work less, live more” central to all your future planning.

You’ll feel better for it.

Going it alone: taking personal ethics to make personal changes in a changing world

Mitigation is the early strategy, while adaptation is the later strategy. Prevention verse cure.

Our species has a terrible track record for identifying long term risk and affording it the necessary preventative measures.

We’re always looking for the cure, or more accurately, the quick fix.

We may lament the lack of political will or the token gestures of industry, but ultimately, we have our own footprint, vote and wallet. No-one is beyond blame for inaction.

Avenues of adaptation

So, to speak of meaningful adaptation, there is only efficiency, which in turn starts to address mitigation also.

We will need to either practice high autonomy (ie. self-sufficiency) or high communal living in retrofitted cities to promote greater interaction to compensate less personal space. These, or a combination of the two – something like a self-sufficient town.

The alternative; low autonomy and low communal living – suburbia – will buckle under economic pressures in coming decades. It isn’t made with any flexibility, easy access to jobs, goods or services and is largely a heat trap. Most houses there are made to large a single generation.

Given the price trends and general design focus of inner-city areas in Australia, it’s unlikely that a lot of us will be able to take the highly communal living approach in the near future.

Likewise, as much as I would jump at the opportunity to work with a group of people to invest and develop a sustainable village, finding enough people in the same part of the world to make it possible is very difficult.

For much of us, the only avenue that is any way achievable is autonomy.

Autonomous footprint, vote and wallet

This is the primary focus that I wish to take NewAnthro on. It is the story of my life for the last few years so far.

I have been exploring food production within my cool Victorian climate, with some success. While my garden only compliments our grocery needs, each week is a little better than the last.

I’ve also been building solar panels and found them to be fairly straightforward. In both the cases of my panels and my garden, being currently stuck in a rental property, I have some significant limitations in what I can achieve.

Then there is “up-cycling”. I hate buzz words generally, but the principle is great and one that I think appeals to anyone who (like myself) is forever spotting things that could be useful in later projects.

The difference between hoarding and up-cycling is actually doing something with this material more than storage. I plan to give some project examples along the way.

My ultimate goal is to be in a position to hit the ground running as soon as I can buy some space.

Two birds, one stone

All that I am working towards is aimed towards buttressing my life, so that it will be more resilient, prosperous and better suited to my personal views and ethics. It will be adaptation.

Yet, as efficiency is at the heart of what I will do, it will be, on a very small scale, mitigation as well.

I might try to find case studies of people who downsized to make the best of life in a highly liveable city as well. I’m confident that this is just as viable, but sadly in short supply.

If any topic, or idea has sat with you and left you thinking, “I wonder if…” please feel free to let me know. I’m always happy to research, test and write on whatever interests my readers and can assist us to reduce our footprint and live more align to our ethics.

 

One Reason Homes Cost So Much

I’ve moved a lot, by anyone’s standards, over my life. The reoccurring theme I’ve found in suburban landscapes is that it’s built for the driver. One’s home is an island within vast tracks of MAMBA. We can do it better. We have done it better. We’ll need to make human landscapes better if we’re ever going to make genuine headway on climate adaption and mitigation as well as increase resource security and waste reduction.

I found this video an interesting piece in the puzzle before us.

My thoughts on potential job losses at CSIRO

In light of the recent news about the potential loss of jobs in the Oceans and Atmosphere and Land and Water divisions of CSIRO, I thought I should repost these videos I made several years ago. At that point, I was working as part of a national network called Ozflux.

It was an incredibly rewarding experience and one that I’ve regretted having to move from ever since. Many of my mentors came from this division of CSIRO and it’s them who come to mind now.

I only hope that enough people recognise the immense value CSIRO is to Australia and that whatever changes are deemed necessary do not negatively impact CSIRO’s role in improving the lives of Australians as well as our understanding of this unique and wonderful landscape.

The ethical city: an idea whose time has come

Written by Brendan Barrett, RMIT University and originally published on The Conversation.


Globally, there is intense discussion about the future of urban life through the World Urban Campaign. The central proposition is that:

… the battle for a more sustainable future will be won or lost in cities.

Presumably, this is predicated on the fact that 54% of the world’s people live in cities, where 70% of global GDP is generated. By 2050 the urban population will have risen to 66%.

In parallel, following the Paris climate agreement, major cities are committing to measures designed to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The poster for this campaign should read “Coming to your city soon”.

It is clear 2016 will be the “urban year” as the global community prepares for the Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador, this October.

At Habitat III, governments will agree an urban agenda to guide global urban development over the next 20 years. The agenda is taking shape through preparatory meetings (the next one is in Indonesia in July), as well as regional and thematic meetings.

A series of 28 urban thinkers campuses has been organised across the globe, running until February 2016. One of the last of these is in Melbourne, Australia.

A world of challenges

We are all too familiar with the problems cities commonly face. These include rising house prices putting ownership beyond the reach of many, suburban sprawl, long commutes, traffic congestion, social problems, isolation and polarisation.

Melbourne leads the pack of Australian cities that rank highly for liveability, but they rate much more poorly for sustainability.
AAP/David Crosling

At the same time, Australian cities have real strengths. This is reflected in their performance in various rankings on liveability and quality of urban life. But we ought not assume that this situation is sustainable, or that we can lock in liveability.

Globally, cities face even greater challenges. In the global south, if you live in a city there is a one-in-three chance that you live in a slum.

Also, despite progress on the Millennium Development Goals, poverty is still our greatest urban concern. It is not limited to the south and has been growing across cities globally since the global financial crisis. Limited financial resources constrain the capacity of city administrations to respond to these challenges, especially in the face of austerity measures.

While that may seem like a pretty glum picture, there are reasons to be hopeful.

In a survey of 20 cities last year for the UN Global Compact Cities Program we identified many examples of civic leadership and urban innovations.

Related to this, in the US, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley at Brookings have described these innovations as a “metropolitan revolution”. They argue that local leaders are doing the hard work of growing the job market and making their communities more prosperous. They cite examples in New York, Portland, Houston and Miami.

In Europe, the Norwegian city of Oslo plans to be fossil-fuel-free by 2030. Utrecht is the first of several cities in the Netherlands planning trials in which they pay citizens a universal basic income.

Oslo aims to be a fossil-fuel-free city by 2030.
flickr/News Oresund, CC BY

Across the English Channel, Bristol is seeking to transform the economy by introducing a local currency. The Bristol pound is designed to strengthen business relationships within the city and to build trust.

What these cities and their leaders have recognised is that “business as usual” will not get us to where we need to be.

Technological innovation, institutional reform, financial investment and regulatory change are all part of the answer, especially as we seek to achieve development goals while ensuring we do not undermine our environmental sustainability. However, we may need to dig deeper. Something that we neglect is the need for changes in values at both the societal and individual levels.

Twisting Einstein’s famous quote somewhat, it is possible to assert that “we can’t solve problems by using the same value system that created them”.

Here is where the notion of the ethical city comes in.

What is the ethical city?

Ethics is concerned with what is “right, fair, just or good”, not necessarily what is most accepted as normal or expedient.

Most people will have heard of the term ethical corporation. It suggests that such businesses place certain key values and practices at the centre of their operations. This could include fairness, integrity, respect for the environment, elimination of discrimination, and so on.

Internationally, some of these key values are elaborated in the ten principles of the UN Global Compact. Thousands of companies have signed up. Mayors of cities and governors of regions can also sign up to these principles by sending a letter to the UN secretary-general.

Yet the term ethical city is rarely used, even though ethical considerations underpin how we plan and manage our cities. And the ethical values underpinning the vast majority of our decisions about city life are rarely made explicit.

Even so, in most cities we already see various measures designed to support ethical governance. These range from internal commissions to audit and check on performance through to measures to promote transparency and community participation in decision-making.

Urban leaders, administrators, planners, engineers and others are aware of the ethical ramifications of their work, have guidance to refer to and training when needed. Although sometimes people fall foul, the vast majority do not because they are seen to be doing the right thing.

But we must recognise that there is a dominant view of “business as usual” based on an embedded set of values. Good examples include how most cities are designed primarily to accommodate the car, how we work in the CBD and live in the suburbs, or how homelessness is seen as a fact of life in many cities.

How do we create a more ethical city?

Thought leaders like Peter Singer have done a lot to elaborate the importance of ethics in everyday life, especially with his book Practical Ethics. However, we live in utilitarian times.

More than ever, our cities need ethical leadership – good governance, transparency, public trust building and fairness. They need ethically based planning to deal with the complex challenges facing our communities. This depends on our willingness to tackle the tough questions around sustainability, resilience, economic vibrancy and inclusiveness.

There is also our role as citizens. What are our expectations of ourselves as ethical, engaged citizens? What do we expect and deserve, and what are we prepared to commit to each other in the ethical city? What kind of citizens do we need to be?

Most of all, if we end up agreeing that we need a city that cares, how do we navigate to this end in a world where private profit and consumption are kings and where the tenets of the ethical city – social inclusion, climate action, gender equity, rights of children and youth, and myriad other rights and needs – are lacking?

If this sounds like a new year dose of utopianism, think of cases that you could envisage in your city – from participatory budgeting, to crowd-funded social enterprises, to any number of people who decided “what should we do?”, then acted on it.


The Ethical Cities Urban Thinkers Campus, to be hosted at RMIT University in Melbourne on February 16, will explore the ethical city in relation to urban development, inclusion and rights, and resilience.The Conversation

Brendan Barrett, Research Fellow, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.